When Bassanio is about to make his choice of the three caskets at Belmont - a choice upon which rests his chances of marriage to Portia - she calls for music and singing while he ponders.

Music, whilst BASSANIO comments on the caskets to himself

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engender'd in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy's knell
I'll begin it,--Ding, dong, bell.

-- The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 64-73

Is this song an attempt by Portia to influence Bassanio subconsciously towards lead?

The meaning of the song is about "fancy", superficial liking; it suggests that what appeals to the eye is not necessarily what is truly valuable. And in a subtle piece of wordplay, the first three lines of the song all rhyme with "lead". Portia is already in love with Bassanio, although she dare not admit it, and she's certainly clever enough to set up such a scheme, in order to prod him towards choosing the right casket but still maintain plausible deniability. On the other hand, perhaps I'm reading too much into this, and underestimating Portia's honour and dedication to the rules imposed by her late father.

1 Answer 1


There's no way to make a direct link between Portia's preparations and Bassanio's eventual choice. It's more instructive, I'd say, to consider the song's effect on the audience.

We see, as early as Portia's first appearance (act 1, scene 2), that she's attracted to Bassanio. "I remember him well," she responds when Nerissa mentions him. She has just trashed a long, diverse series of suitors, so he made an impression.

We see one suitor choose the gold casket and another the silver. Both are sent home. There are only three caskets, so we know the third, leaden casket is the correct choice. Portia knows too, and we know she wants Bassanio to make the right choice.

Portia asks for music while Bassanio makes his decision. Imagine yourself in the Globe Theater, watching this scene. You're rooting for him, you're thinking, "Lead! Lead! It's the lead one!" You hear the song. "Bred... Head... Shed... Lead! Come on! You've got this!"

But Shakespeare is going to wring every possible drop of drama from this situation. Bassanio reasons his way to the right answer, taking his time. The audience as well as Portia hang on every word. She's a fictional character, but members of the audience are real. They will remember that moment. They will come back for more. Four centuries later, we're still coming back for more.

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